‘Asking students to observe lessons? You may as well ask the class hamster about the best way to teach phonics’

I know as much about flying a jumbo jet as my pupils know about teaching, so why would they have any idea about whether I'm any good or not, asks the government’s classroom behaviour tsar?

Tom Bennett

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As I type, I'm on a flight, which is, say, 500 tonnes of metal and moulded plastic, held aloft by magic. When we hit some turbulence the plane just shrugged as the pilot took us above an angry sky, and we all ate Toblerone as we tore along at 560 mph across the Atlantic.

But last time I was in a plane, it was a Ryanair white-knuckle ride to Rzeszów, and we landed like someone threw a go-cart down some stairs and got lucky.

Which one was the better pilot?

How could I even begin to answer that question any better than asking an ant who made the best King Lear? Everything I know about flying a plane I got from watching the A-team. I know nothing of the pilot's domain; I don't know which stick or button engages the landing gear, and which one fires the rockets.

In short, I have no idea what a bad pilot looks like.

Teachers in tears 

For years we expected inspectors to do the same from classrooms; to be able to put their hand into a lesson for a few minutes and tell you if it was raining or you were reigning, as if the quality of your teaching or the depth of the class’s learning could be estimated by plunging a dipstick into your lesson. Thankfully Ofsted have dried out from that addiction, although many schools still seem suck hard on the glass pipe of graded lessons. And some inspectors still grade silently in their heads.

There is a trickle of truth seeping out into the ecosystem; it is very hard to judge the quality of a lesson unless you understand the context of the class, where it is leading, and – most importantly – if you are of some use yourself as a teacher. (We used to have lay inspectors – non-teachers – judging lessons. Let that sink in.)

In fact, it’s hard to think of another sector that would so readily suffer inspection by people who couldn't do or remember doing the thing being inspected. Teachers told to run classrooms by people who could barely run a Punch and Judy tent; advised by management who climbed the ladder through administrative ingenuity rather than tours of duty; dilettantes, bureaucrats, armchair experts and people with degrees in land management.

But all of that pales by comparison to evaluation by student.

I once worked in a school that piloted student assessment of teachers. Cue teachers in tears. I refused to be included in the madness. Because no child has the experience to know what the teacher is trying to do or trying to achieve, hasn’t the content knowledge, or the interpersonal skills to appreciate the undercurrents of what might appear successful or not.

Does a teacher qualification mean something or not? Is it worth something or nothing? Does its possession entail a professional identity, or a merely arbitrary one? Because every time I hear that a school is using students to grade teachers, I feel like the question is being asked again.

Now we see that the Scottish Inspectorate are recommending that students be asked to do just this. Schools will have an increased focus on how well ‘schools engage with students – and pupils will be involved in estimating teacher quality.’

(All this comes from a document called How Good Is Our School 4, which presumably is the sequel to I Know How You Taught Last Summer.)

Defenders of this inanity argue from kinder, more gentle, positions. Surely, they claim, students’ opinions on a wide range of things can be important? And the answer is of course: there may be scores of matters they can inform us on profitably, like toilet design or corridor flash points. But whatever these inputs are, they are contextual; suggestions rather than edicts, to be heard, filtered and used appropriately by older and wider heads. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that the children are wiser than us.

Student Voice has become a banal, anodyne term, exploited in banal ways like it’s the last word in an argument. 'Why are we allowing pupil perception to influence performance management? Because student voice.' One inspector involved in the recent Scottish develoments Patricia Watson, put it like this: 'While there have been improvements in pupil voice it too easily led to consultations that never led anywhere.'  Fancy that.

I hold my breath for the day that Ms Watson allows her inspection to be assessed by teachers, or pupils. 'There will be teachers,' she says, 'who find it difficult....but a school in Angus has shown it can work.' Oh sure. And I can show that it doesn't in others, and melts teachers with the indignity of being forced to impress their pupils. And our anecdotes clash furiously and redundantly.

As reliable as reading tea leaves

Research by the Sutton trust supports this; while it’s cautiously optimistic that student input can be valuable – which is a sensible position few could dispute – it is cautious about the approach, pointing out the pitfalls clearly. Interestingly, student evaluation of teachers has been found in some studies to more accurately predict grade outcomes (and by proxy, teacher quality) than graded lesson observation. But given that the latter is as reliable as reading tea leaves, I don't think the bar is high.

What insanity compels us to import this fool’s charter into schools? You may as well ask the class hamster what the best way to teach phonics is.

Happily the teaching unions call it a nonsense, which is what it is; both the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association and the Education Institute of Scotland have rejected it.

No one is disputing that feedback can be powerful; I used to ask my students all the time to tell me what they understood, and what we needed to cover again, or from different angles. I used to ask selected groups about behaviour, moral, ways we could improve and so on. But I did so as a consultative exercise, under my auspices, and resting on my will as arbiter. It wasn't a noose around my necklace and a bucket at my feet; it wasn't an ‘or else’, or a ‘you better’. It was a ‘what if?’

Managers who introduce this lash would buckle and heave if they were to be asked to be judged by their teams; heads would blow up the boiler room rather than allow their staff to nudge their annual appraisal even a millimetre downwards. I invite every teacher affected by this insipid, fag-packet, blue-sky moronism to send a clear message to the simple-minded souls who propose it: get stuffed. Let us get on with our jobs, and if you lack the stomach and the resources to support what we do in the classroom then at least have the decency to get the hell out of it. I am reminded of one truth that keeps me focused: teachers' jobs are to teach children; managers jobs are to allow that to happen. Anything else is ballast. Children don't know what a teacher's job is like.

And I can't fly a damn plane.

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Tom Bennett

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